North’s poverty: Dangote, NEF scapegoating governors

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Given the widespread corruption and mismanagement in Nigeria’s governance, I never thought I would come to the defence of any group of political leaders being chastised for failing to alleviate poverty. Yet, here I am coming to the defence of Northern governors against that blame.

This defence would seem even more impetuous given that the criticisms came from northern industrial and intellectual stalwarts. But then my counterpoint is backed by armour provided by yet another northern policy standout and traditional leader. So, I trudge more boldly than would have been sensible otherwise.

In a keynote address at the Fourth Kaduna Economic and Investment Summit early this month, Nigeria’s foremost industrialist Aliko Dangote bemoaned the scope of poverty in the North and then put the blame squarely on northern governors.

“While the overall social economic consideration in the country is a cause for concern, the regional indicators are very alarming,” the chairman of Dangote Group is quoted by Akelicious as saying. “In the north-western and north-eastern parts of Nigeria, more than 60 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty.”

To further drive home the regional discrepancy, Dangote added: “It is instructive to know that the 19 northern states, which account for over 54 per cent of the country’s population and 70 per cent of its landmass, collectively generated only 21 per cent of the total sub-national internally generated revenue in 2017.”

And then came the blame: “Northern Nigeria will continue to fall behind if the respective state governments do not move to close the development gap and that is why we are always saying that the biggest challenge we have and what we are always praying for is to have 10 governors like Mallam Nasir El-Rufai in the North.”

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Less than two weeks later, Dangote was seconded by Professor Ango Abdullahi, speaking on behalf of the Northern Elders Forum. “We fully endorsed Dangote’s observations. Of course, you don’t need to go anywhere to search for the existence of abject poverty in this country, particularly in the northern part of Nigeria,”Abdullahi was quoting as saying. “But then, where do you put claims of responsibility? Our position like Aliko Dangote’s, is that there is irresponsibility of governance, especially in the North.”

Abdullahi then elaborated: “We completely agree with Dangote that poverty is here (North). Of course, my take is that leadership has failed at governance level, particularly at the state and local government levels.”

Both Dangote and Abdullahi recommended intensified investment in agriculture as the way out. “The North must focus on harnessing its massive agricultural potential in terms of both production and processing. No region with such high agricultural potential should be this poor,” Dangote said. “Given the vast arable land and conducive condition, I think in the next 10 years, agriculture can generate more revenue and prosperity than oil that we have now if we have the right commitment.”

The importance of agriculture to national development is one that has been preached over the past half a century or so. And the point never wears thin. Unlike industrial production, agriculture requires minimal capital investment at its most basic level. And even in this high-tech era, it is a sector that can still employ a large number of unskilled people. Barring a catastrophe, a family that farms is unlikely to have any of its members begging on the streets.

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Moreover, agricultural produce gives rise to processing plants, industrial production and higher-skilled jobs. Governors definitely have an important role to play in championing policies that bring these about.

Values factor

However, there is one obstacle to poverty alleviation in the North that Dangote and Abdullahi didn’t address, and that is cultural practices. Actually, Abdullahi alluded to it when he cited statistics on the low rate of primary education in the North.

“Today, we are talking of 13.5 million children out of school and 90 per cent of this number is from the North,” Abdullahi said. “These are children of between ages six and seven that are out of school. They have no vocational training and other means of survival and in the next 10 to 15 years, they will become adults. What do you expect?”Exacerbation of poverty, of course, but that would be too obvious an answer.

The factor of cultural values was addressed more pointedly two years ago by Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and now Emir of Kano. In a wide-ranging speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Union Bank in November 2017, Sanusi pointed to social practices that worsen poverty in the North.

“We have too many queen bees,” Sanusi said, referring to the large number of young women abandoned by their husbands to fend for their children.

“How many of you who have become top bankers, top politicians have actually done anything for those children who were taken out of school? Can you tell me when last did you see a debate when politicians talked about what they are going to do about low child education, forced marriage, domestic violence, rights of women who are divorced and left with children un-catered for?

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“And why are we surprised if on the streets of Kano or the streets of Zamfara or the streets of Sokoto we see child beggars when we allow their fathers to marry three, four wives and have 22 children on an income that cannot support those families?”

This is the crux of the matter. And quite a bit of it has to do with societal values and practices more so than governance per se. Can state governments — not just governors — move to stop parents from taking kids out of school? Can they pass laws obligating fathers to take care of their children? Can they stiffen divorce laws so that husbands cannot walk away from their marriage merely by repeating, “I divorce you” three times?

I suppose the answer is yes for the first two questions. But for the third, one can’t be too sure. That practice is said to derive from the Islamic faith. Therefore, legislative attempts to change it may be vehemently resisted.

Same goes for the practice of marrying multiple wives and fathering scores of children without the means to support them. Can state governments legislate against that? Or is it a matter of re-orientation of values, the kind of task that is best championed by traditional leaders such as the emir? Given the religious impetus of these practices, I am inclined to pick the latter approach.

So, yes, the governors are an important vehicle of change, but the challenges go far beyond them.

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